Owning and managing a nationally recognized organic grocery store wasn’t originally part of the hopes and dreams of Terra Organic and Natural Foods founder, Stephen Trinkaus. Instead, his passion to offer quality organic products grew gradually, beginning in 1991. Trinkaus attended a speech at Western Washington University by the labor organizer and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, where he learned about the plight of migrant farm workers. That talk hit Trinkaus particularly close to home because he had worked and befriended many migrant workers in previous jobs.
Trinkaus’ growing awareness led him to alter his life drastically, changing from a typical American diet to an all-organic one, living off-the-grid for a time, and even shifting his career focus from international business to organic agriculture.
“I attended farming conferences and industry trade shows and took nutritional workshops,” Trinkaus explains of his early days learning about the organic foods industry. “I saw organic values being corrupted by greed. Large corporations — with little interest in planetary or human health — gobbled up small companies, and industry pioneers were trading integrity for higher profit margins.” These and other similar realizations led him to action — opening his own all-organic grocery store, “a back-to-the-roots endeavor of integrity, where people and planet would always come before profits.”
Beginning in a former auto parts store on State Street in 1997 on a shoestring budget, Trinkaus’ tiny store, then named Terra Organica, opened to great demand. By 2005, continued demand drove Trinkaus to search for a larger location. He discovered the grocery store’s current downtown location at the corner of Cornwall Avenue and York Street. Although ideal in many ways, the space was much bigger than what he wanted or needed at the time, but Trinkaus turned that conundrum into inspiration.
With the large space, Trinkaus was able to expand from a grocery store business model into the multi-vendor marketplace now known as the Bellingham Public Market. “In a public market, businesses can share things like parking, restrooms, utility fees and marketing expenses, and that benefits customers through lower pricing due to reduced operating costs. It also provides easy access to many great stores in a single location,” explains Trinkaus. Terra is the largest tenant and acts as the anchor business for the market.
The Public Market has changed significantly since 2005, saying goodbye to some former vendors and working through growing pains that challenged the business in ways Trinkaus never anticipated. In 2013, the Organic Consumers Association named Terra one of the Top 12 “Right to Know” grocers in North America, in part because of their pioneering of voluntary transparency using shelf-based labeling of products likely to contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). In the same year, they received the Sustainable Business award from the Bellingham-based nonprofit Sustainable Connections.
The Bellingham Public Market continues to grow and thrive. This year, the market celebrated the completion of an expansion and remodel. Terra is now three times as big, with 15,000 square feet of retail floor space, additional bathrooms, and more than twice the number of organic products. There’s also a conference room offered free of charge to non-profits and community groups.
“We focused on creating a market space that is a pleasure to visit,” Trinkaus says. “The aisles are wide, the background music upbeat, and we topped it off with local artwork and décor that makes the space feel vibrant and reflective of the natural and artistic flavor of Whatcom County. Every day people compliment us for what a beautiful space this is.”
In early October, beloved Bellingham video store Film is Truth 24 Times a Second moved to join the family of public market vendors. “Film is Truth now occupies space that was a former storage area,” notes Trinkaus, “and they absorbed our store’s former movie rental business.”
Besides Terra and Film is Truth, the Bellingham Public Market is hopping with a variety of other locally owned and independent businesses including:
- Electric Beet Juice Co., offering quality smoothies, juices, and a variety of raw foods
- Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine, the only Ethiopian eatery between Seattle and Vancouver
- Mount Baker Books, which buys, sells and trades used books
- Makizushi, serving generous portions of sushi and teriyaki at great prices
- Living Earth Herbs, with culinary and medicinal herbs, teas, essential oils, and related products
- Trapeze, an organic café and deli
Terra appreciates its loyal customers while hoping that new ones continue to find them. “Many people still have never heard of Terra or the Public Market,” explains Trinkaus. “But when they do, they are usually impressed by our selection and prices.”
Every week, Terra creates a “Deals of The Week” flyer that’s available in the store and on their website. It’s not uncommon to find, for example, organic olive oil at 50 percent off or organic yogurt for 70 percent off. “There’s no need for value and organic to be mutually exclusive terms,” Trinkaus explains. “We have built long-term relationships with suppliers that provide us with great everyday prices and even better weekly and monthly deals. At the same time, we focus on the higher quality and unique products, so there is something here for everyone.”
Trinkaus recently hired a research coordinator whose focus is ensuring that Terra’s product selection reflects their values of caring for people and the planet and communicating those differences to their customers. “We do a profound amount of research,” Trinkaus says with pride. “At the end of the day, it’s the main thing that sets us apart from all of our competitors.”
Terra also fosters a loyalty program through their Terra Card. “It’s free to sign up at customer service. We send you a $5 coupon for every $500 you spend as well as another $5 coupon on your birthday,” explains Trinkaus. The Terra card also qualifies members for a number of specials and discounts including 20 percent off all produce on Sundays, 10 percent off for seniors 65 and older on Wednesdays, and 10 percent off for students on Saturdays.
“I opened the business because of my passion for healthy, organic foods, but I have to admit that my favorite part of owning the store is the community that surrounds it,” says Trinkaus. “The employees, the customers, the other business owners and their employees, the delivery drivers and farmers — they are what put a smile on my face and inspire me to continue with our original vision,” he says with a glimmer in his eye. “I can’t think of any place I’d rather work, or anything more rewarding than providing such an essential link between organic producers and the general public. From the seed planted in the soil to the bite of delicious food on your plate or the beverage in your glass; from the book by your night stand to the inspiring movie in your DVD player; from the gift to a loved one to the greeting card that accompanies it, Terra and the Bellingham Public Market are there, 363 days a year, from early in the morning until 10:00 p.m. at night, to nourish the mind, body and soul.”
Terra Organic & Natural Foods
The Bellingham Public Market
1530 Cornwall Avenue
Bellingham, WA 98225
Monday through Friday: 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Saturday through Sunday: 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.